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World Water Day

Volume 691: debated on Thursday 18 March 2021

I beg to move,

That this House has considered World Water Day 2021.

I thank the co-sponsors of this debate, ahead of World Water Day on 22 March—the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr Wragg), my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) and the hon. Member for Dundee West (Chris Law). It also has the support of the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham) and my hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson). I also thank the many organisations that have campaigned on this important issue over the years—to name just a few, WaterAid, UNICEF, Oxfam and Global Justice Now. UN Water has done important work, as has, more widely, the United Nations. I also pay tribute to We Own It, whose tireless work on water access in this country has drawn attention to the spiralling cost of water to consumers since it was first privatised in England and Wales under Margaret Thatcher’s Government in 1989.

The need for clean, accessible water is universal. It should not be a privilege for countries with the highest GDP or those that benefit from a geographical location that means they are safe from the ravages of climate change. It is a disgrace that almost half the world’s population is without access to clean water. It is even more shocking, given that we are in the midst of a global pandemic and a key factor in halting the spread of covid is people’s ability to wash their hands regularly. Despite that, figures by WaterAid reveal that more than 3 billion people are unable to wash their hands with soap and water at home, half of healthcare facilities in low-income countries lack basic water services, and 60% have no sanitation services at all.

That is set to worsen with the climate emergency, with warmer temperatures, rising sea levels, increased floods, droughts and melting ice affecting the quality and availability of water and sanitation systems. Forecasts show that, by 2040, a quarter of all children worldwide will live in areas with extremely limited water access. Data from Oxfam, which has done so much to help communities gain access to clean water, reveals that 2.4 billion people do not have access to a toilet, while a staggering 4.5 billion people lack safely managed sanitation services.

The lack of access to water is a killer. Figures from the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development show that unsafe water accounts for more than 1.2 million deaths each year. Every minute, a newborn child dies from infection caused by a lack of safe water and an unclean environment. That is backed up by WaterAid’s research, which adds that unclean births caused by limited water supply account for 11% of global maternal mortality, while approximately 20% of all global deaths are due to sepsis, which often arises from contaminated water.

This crisis is being exacerbated by the ongoing pandemic. More than half of all healthcare facilities in low-income countries are operating without access to hand-washing facilities. At present, according to WaterAid, just 5% of climate finance is spent helping countries adapt to climate change. Even less is given to the most vulnerable countries. Less than 1% of total global climate investment goes on basic water infrastructure and services. The climate emergency is the greatest challenge facing our planet, and that approach falls well short of what is urgently required.

Just a week after International Women’s Day, it is worth noting that 80% of people displaced by climate change are women. That means that, in the aftermath of disasters, women are more likely than men to be displaced and become victims of violence. Women are also more affected by droughts and water shortages, and often have to walk even longer distances to collect water. This also has enormous implications for global food production.

My hon. Friend is listing some really important interlinkages of how water is vital to achieve all these other important goals. Of course, many of them are the sustainable development goals. Is he worried, as I am, that covid has put back much of our progress on the SDGs—particularly the water and sanitation goal—and that 2030 is looking further off than it did a year and a half ago?

I fully share my hon. Friend’s concerns about the sustainable development goals.

The cost associated with tackling this issue is not prohibitive; far from it. The World Health Organisation and UNICEF estimate that providing water, sanitation and hygiene in 80% of healthcare facilities in low-income countries by 2025 would cost approximately $3.6 billion, of which $1.2 is capital costs. To put that in context, funding the initial infrastructure costs would account for just 6% of the US Government’s $20 billion budget they set aside for global health, and it represents a tiny fraction of the $732 billion the US spends on its military budget each year. And that is just one country.

In the UK, sadly, our funding has often worsened, not improved, access to water when it is linked to projects that privatise services. For example, research by Global Justice Now revealed that, over the past decade, UK aid accelerated the privatisation of public services in the global south. Overseas development aid was invested in for-profit schools, unaffordable private hospitals, water and sanitation privatisation and private sector energy projects.

That approach does long-lasting damage. For example, in the 1980s and 1990s, a wave of privatisation swept across much of the global south, with Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa particularly impacted. Many indebted Governments who turned to the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank to restructure their debts were subsequently forced to reduce public spending and privatise public services as a condition of future loans. Under dictator Pinochet, Chile enshrined water privatisation in its constitution, and 40 years later it continues to pay the highest rates for water in Latin America.

Despite reassurances from the Prime Minister when it was announced last year that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development would merge, the Government have since shelved their ring-fenced commitment to spend 0.7% of national income on overseas aid, cutting spending to 0.5% despite the Conservative manifesto commitment to maintain the higher target. At the start of the pandemic, DFID announced a £100 million campaign to support better hygiene practices, including access to water. At the time, the Government stated that the programme would work in 37 countries and help implement country-specific activities on safe water and sanitation. Separate funding of £20 million was also made available in a humanitarian support package. All this is now under threat.

In the UK, we are incredibly fortunate to have access to clean, safe water that has been treated and tested to the highest standards. However, in the past three decades, we have also seen the privatised model lead to spiralling costs that are not matched by investment in infrastructure and quality of service. Research by We Own It revealed that between 1989, when the UK water companies were first privatised, and 2016, water bills increased by 40%. According to the Commons Library, there were price hikes of up to 50% in the decade after water and other utility companies were denationalised—this despite UK companies paying billions to shareholders. Indeed, between 2013 and 2017 alone, UK water companies handed out more than £6.5 billion to shareholders, clearly prioritising profit over people.

While the water industry is always quick to argue that the increase in bills since privatisation has been accompanied by investment in infrastructure by companies and improvements in service quality, the reality is that the infrastructure is poorly maintained. That has resulted in the network haemorrhaging water, with more than 3 billion litres lost each day, equal to 53 litres per person, which is 21% of the water taken from the environment each day by water companies. The reality is that it is far more commercially appealing for private companies and their shareholders to buy new and often protected tracts of land to build new reservoirs, rather than fix the existing leaking infrastructure. That has led to parts of London and the south-east facing severe shortages, and responsibility for that must, at least partly, be laid at the door of water companies.

My hon. Friend is right to point out that Britain is the only country in the world to have dabbled in complete privatisation of water. In places where Labour has maintained power, we have mutualised it and renationalised it. Many customers in Britain will be seeing rising water bills because they have been at home during covid. Does he agree that something the Government could do to help the pound in the pocket of ordinary citizens is bring water back into a mutual, non-profit structure and make sure that the money goes to where it is deserved?

I remind the hon. Member that we are under massive pressure for time, so he should be looking to wind up very soon.

I will, Mr Deputy Speaker. I fully share my hon. Friend’s concerns; his point about water companies going back into public hands is very valid, and I support that.

I will conclude in a moment, but first I would like to talk about the Flint water scandal. Time and again, we have seen that private water companies do not have the consumer’s best interests at heart, and the drive for increasing profit comes at the expense of health and safety. Perhaps the most notable example of that was the Flint water scandal in Michigan, which is one of the worst human-made environmental disasters in US history and a case that has been held up as a symbol of environmental injustice and racism.

In an effort to cut costs with the private water contractor, Veolia, former Governor Rick Snyder took the decision to use Flint river to supply water to the city’s predominantly African-American and economically poor population. The corrosive water, however, was not treated properly—a misstep that freed lead from old plumbing into homes. Despite desperate pleas from residents holding jugs of discoloured water, the Snyder administration and the drinking water regulator took no significant action until a doctor publicly reported elevated lead levels in children 18 months later. In the months and years that followed, 12,000 children were exposed to dangerous levels of lead, while residents experienced rashes and hair loss, and 12 people died from an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease. It is time for private water companies to be prevented from treating our environment like a sewer and finally bring water back into public ownership.

In conclusion, I call on the UK Government to continue to play their part and help alleviate the suffering and harm caused by limited access to clean water. This means ensuring that water, sanitation and hygiene are fully integrated into all health programmes supported by UK aid, as well as using our role as chair of the G7 to bring donors together to make progress towards funding the $1.2 billion that is needed to build the basic infrastructure for water, sanitation and hygiene and health facilities in low-income countries.

To assist those taking part in the debate, the wind-ups will begin at no later than 4.36 pm with Patricia Gibson for six minutes, then Anna McMorrin at 4.42 pm for eight minutes, then Wendy Morton at 4.50 pm for eight minutes, and then Navendu Mishra will have the last two minutes.

World Water Day is an important time to reflect upon the universal value of water and the many obstacles freshwater communities face across the world. Climate change is driving water scarcity across the global south, affecting South and central America, Africa and east Asia, with projections of water shortages reaching extremely dangerous levels over the next 10 years. That is why today’s debate is so important and why it is deeply concerning that the UK Government have substantially cut overseas aid that would help millions of people facing some of the worst droughts, famines and humanitarian crises in recent history.

It must also be noted that water scarcity is intensifying regional conflicts, one example of which is in Jammu and Kashmir, where climate change means natural glaciers are melting, leading to a significant reduction in fresh water supplies. In addition, several rivers that run through the region provide water to two major regional powers, Pakistan and India. India’s recent military occupation of Kashmir was in part driven by concerns over water shortages, and it is clear that the situation in Jammu and Kashmir is part of a water conflict between Pakistan and India with the people of Kashmir caught in the middle, suffering increasing water scarcity as a result. Therefore, it is essential that international organisations work together to solve water scarcity and prevent conflicts from arising. This is why the situation in Jammu and Kashmir is of international significance and why the conflict in the region must be brought to a peaceful and just resolution so that the people of Kashmir, Pakistan and India do not face an escalating humanitarian crisis due to scarcity of water.

Water is everywhere; after all, our planet is a watery one, with water covering 71% of Earth’s surface. One might wonder why we need to worry about it, but despite our abundance of it our activities to plunder the world’s most precious natural resources give us cause for concern.

World Water Day is all about valuing water, and I rather worry that we take it for granted. All too often we risk denigrating our water supply, harming its sustainability and creating vast amounts of pollution, and the growing threats from climate change will have a significant impact on the availability, quality and quantity of water for our basic human needs.

Water may be all around us, but it is also in us. As you sit there, Madam Deputy Speaker, your body is made up of 60% water; it is rather important in regulating your temperature, transporting nutrients around and helping digestion, not to mention many other bodily functions. Put simply, water is essential to life, because all lifeforms are dependent on it. And as such, Earth is dependent on a stable hydrological cycle that if we do not use it properly threatens our water security.

I have dealt with many water security issues in my constituency. Many of my constituents are farmers—the very people who, arguably, do more than most to manage our precious planet by using it to grow food. Some of my farmers are threatened with their livelihoods for abstracting too much water, despite any convincing or compelling evidence base to support this claim. When these are the very people who create the jobs, the employment and the food that we eat on many of the food shelves around the country, such threats are a worry. Our focus must be on those who truly are harming our planet, not those doing the lion’s share to protect it. I would say to the Environment Agency that revoking water licences on which many businesses depend will have an adverse and permanent effect on the livelihoods and employment of those involved. All decisions must be backed by unequivocal scientific facts. Need I point out that growing the crops that we all eat needs more than anything—yes, that is right—water.

The Government’s 25-year plan, which commits to achieving plentiful clean water, is commended, as is the landmark Environment Bill, but there is much to do. A recent Environmental Audit Committee inquiry learned that only 14% of our rivers are currently achieving good ecological status. Freshwater species are going extinct more rapidly than terrestrial or marine species globally. Almost one third of freshwater biodiversity faces extinction worldwide due to habitat loss, invasive species, pollution and over-harvesting.

This debate nobly aims to raise awareness of water, but, perhaps, when we reach for the taps to make ourselves a cup of tea later today, let us not take it quite for granted. We should think a bit harder about the one in 10 who do not have access to clean water. It is not our gold, diamonds and pearls that are our precious resources, but our life-giver, water.

First, let me thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Navendu Mishra) for securing this debate.

Access to clean water for drinking and for sanitation is an inalienable human right. Importantly, though, access to water and sanitation is recognised by the United Nations as a human right, reflecting the fundamental nature of these basics in every person’s life. Lack of access to safe drinking water, water for sanitation and water that is truly affordable has a particularly devastating effect on billions of people on their health, dignity and prosperity, especially in the global south. The markets and the money men think differently, with water joining gold, oil and other commodities being traded on Wall Street, as worries about the uncertainty of its availability in the future rises and therefore its attractiveness to big investors.

Water traded as a commodity is morally reprehensible. While the privateers make a tidy sum, half a million die globally each year because of diarrhoea-related illnesses on the back of drinking contaminated water, and that is just scratching the surface. The water shortage issue is slowly appearing on our media’s agenda, albeit on the back of rich Californians being told that they are not permitted to fill their swimming pools, or, of course, of the hosepipe bans that we have seen issued in recent years across the south of England on the back of protracted droughts. Growing water shortages are every bit linked to the deepening climate emergency as global temperatures continue to rise. By 2040, one in four children worldwide will lack access to clean drinking water. That means that, if they do not perish from diseases first, school days are lost and all human development indices will be down.

I know that we are looking at the global picture today, but nations—be they rich like ours—need to lay down a marker, driving the privateers out of the water markets, and that starts by nationalising our own water supply. Our international development strategy should be focused on helping developing nations to take control or maintain control of their own water supplies that are run in the interests of their own people, not private profit.

In many ways, water is the perfect commodity. It is a fixed, finite resource with a global market that covers every human being on the planet who needs access to it for survival. Most alarming is the emerging view that the resource wars of the future will be fought not on scarce resources like oil, but on water. We only need to look at the recent past for evidence of what could await poorer countries, particularly if right-wing autocrats force their people to abide by World Bank privatisation diktats in exchange for loans. We saw this in Bolivia barely two decades ago, where it even went as far as criminalising the collection of rainwater and violent scenes broke out across the country.

Members of this place should be absolutely committed to this agenda—one that guarantees universal access to clean and safe water for every human being, and a just settlement based on developing countries having the tools at their disposal to oversee their own destiny.

World Water Day is about what water means to people, its true value and how we can better protect this vital resource. The issue of water means different things to different people. I acknowledge that, for many in the world, this means access to a safe drinking supply, but today I want to focus on another area. As a former lifeguard and chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on water safety and drowning prevention, the issue that I want to discuss is that of access to water in order to swim.

Our connection to water is as old as humankind. It has even led some, such as Elaine Morgan, to propose in her book “The Aquatic Ape Hypothesis” that humans evolved from creatures in the water. I would claim that we have never left it. Nowadays, it seems that everyone is engaged in wild swimming, but this has not always been the case. In the 19th century, swimming was an exclusive activity restricted to men and access to swimming pools was a luxury limited by class. If women chose to swim in the sea, they had to ensure that no men were around. Even in the 20th century, they could be arrested and convicted if they sought to take a dip in a lake. Amazingly, it was not until the 1930s that women were finally allowed to publicly bathe, so I am sure that we are all very pleased to see that the advancement of women’s rights has progressed, even if it has only been in outdoor swimming.

Outdoor swimming has gained huge popularity in recent years. The debate continues as to whether it is better to swim with or without a wetsuit, but the health benefits and potential for wellness and mindfulness have shown us that this activity improves not only physical health but mental health. But we have a problem here in England. In Scotland, swimmers have a clear right to swim, which goes alongside their right to roam. Scotland allows swimming in any outdoor water. In England and Wales, the law is not so clear. It is legal to swim in any navigable waters, but this means water that is also being used by boats and other watercraft, posing a hazard to those swimming. Access to water becomes fraught with problems around civil trespass, and actually getting in and out of the water. Indeed, the private owners of reservoirs ignore the desire for people to swim, even though they allow activities on their water source.

Today I am calling on the Government to support the Outdoor Swimming Society’s campaign for clearer legal access to water bodies in England and Wales. We did it for access to the countryside; now let us do it for access to waterways.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Navendu Mishra) on securing this important debate. I agree with every point he made. With climate breakdown threatening to plunge vast swathes of the world into drought and water conflict, it is simply shameful that the Government are cutting overseas aid spending. It signals a worrying retreat from the UK’s long-standing humanitarian commitments, and I urge the Minister responsible to change course. My hon. Friend is quite right to demand action for the 2.2 billion people globally who still lack access to clean drinking water.

World Water Day marks a day dedicated to the sustainable management of water resources, so I also want to discuss the immense challenges facing us at home. It seems inconceivable that Britain, with its rolling green fields and regular rainfall, could ever want for water, but the climate crisis and water wastage could plunge us into a life-threatening water shortage in less than 25 years. Sir James Bevan, head of the Environment Agency, has warned that we are staring into “the jaws of death”—the point at which we will not even have enough water to supply our needs. Urgent action is needed to improve infrastructure and reduce wastage, and that means acknowledging that water is a public good, not a private commodity.

Since the privatisation of water in 1989, the average bill has risen by 40% in real terms, and £57 billion that could have been invested in making much needed internal improvements has been paid out in dividends to private shareholders. We have been left with a system in which almost 3 billion litres of water—approximately the amount consumed by 22 million people—is lost in leaks every day. If Members will forgive my phrasing, privatisation has been a busted flush.

I say to the Government, who have already borrowed so much from my party’s 2019 manifesto, that there is one more Labour policy ripe for the taking: a publicly owned, democratically controlled water system. By at last bringing water back into public ownership, we could slash the average water bill by at least £100 a year and plough profits back into securing water mains and reducing leakage. As part of a wider green industrial revolution, we could create thousands of new, highly skilled jobs in the construction and maintenance of new and improved waterworks.

Public ownership would not just bring benefits to people living in Britain; the conversation about water is a global issue, and the UK must play its part. By developing much needed infrastructure, skills and expertise at home, the UK can play a leading role in assisting those nations most afflicted by water scarcity and those people across the globe deprived of this live-giving resource.

Congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Navendu Mishra) on securing this important debate, and I thank the Backbench Business Committee for allowing it.

This debate marks international World Water Day, which is on 22 March and is an opportunity to talk about access for all to this necessary resource with a live-giving property—water. As co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on water, sanitation and hygiene, I am delighted to be able to speak in today’s debate. As hon. Members may be aware, I am unapologetically evangelical about the importance of water, sanitation and hygiene—WASH.

This debate will be warmly welcomed by constituents across the UK who support water projects so generously through organisations such as WaterAid and CAFOD. They get it. They get that we cannot eradicate poverty, we cannot have gender equality and education for all, we cannot tackle climate change, and we cannot achieve peace and security around the world if we do not fund water, sanitation and hygiene. Investment in national public services and water systems is both a high value for money investment and highly valued by the British public.

In my work for WaterAid, Christian Aid and CAFOD, I have seen the transformative impact that having water and sanitation can bring to people’s lives—to whole communities transformed by having water. I have seen women who can now get jobs because they do not have to be off fetching water. I have seen nurses and doctors saying that they are able to do their job—that they are able to save lives now—because they have water facilities in their clinics. But I have also seen the impact of not having water. I have spoken to a mother whose baby died of sepsis, an entirely preventable disease—clean water is necessary for preventing it—that is responsible for an extraordinary one in five global deaths.

Our aid budget simply does not fund WASH projects enough. Just 2% of the UK aid budget is spent on WASH, and even that is under threat, with the aid budget being cut by devastating amounts, from £15 billion to £9 billion this year. I urge the Minister to think WASH in all her planning, budgeting and delivery. I am very disappointed that the integrated review published this week contains almost no mention of water and sanitation, and no recognition of how fundamentally strategic this issue is. Its scale is enormous, and it must be met by equal ambition. We could be showing leadership on this across the world.

Some 2 billion people lack access to safe water for drinking, cooking or personal use, and 55% of the global population still lacks access to safely managed sanitation. One in two healthcare facilities in the least developed countries lacks basic water services. If my local hospital said it had no water, we would close it down. If my son’s school said it had no water, we would not send children to it. We would not say that those were adequate education or healthcare facilities, yet we fund the building of healthcare clinics and schools around the world that do not have water. It has got to stop. A shortage of clean water for hand washing, sanitation and hygiene is also fundamental in stopping the covid spread

I urge the Government to commit, as a minimum, to returning to the 0.7% aid target as soon as possible. I would like to hear more than warm words from the Minister today. Those words must be backed up by a step change in our funding for water and sanitation, using the role as the chair of the G7 to bring together global donors to fund this and using our role as host of COP26 to bring WASH funding to the fore. It is time for the UK to return to being a world leader in delivering water and sanitation programmes, and the UK public will cheer us on.

It is a pleasure to follow my good friend my hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson) on an issue that is extremely close to both our hearts. Members are making some fantastic points about global water poverty, but I am sure it will come as no surprise that I will be keeping my contributions focused on the situation a little closer to home. Colleagues may not be aware of this, but in my former life I worked at the not-for-profit water company Dŵr Cymru—Welsh Water. I am also the proud co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on water.

I have raised the issue of flooding time and again in my contributions, and I am afraid that today, in a debate commemorating World Water Day, it would be remiss of me to open with any other topic. As colleagues will be aware, my community in Pontypridd was hit by devastating flooding in February last year. More than 1,800 homes were affected and, sadly, water entered more than 320 homes across my constituency. Time and again in this House, I and my Rhondda Cynon Taf colleagues —my hon. Friends the Members for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), for Cynon Valley (Beth Winter) and for Ogmore (Chris Elmore)—have called on this Government to step up and take the issue of flooding in Wales seriously. After much persistence from my Labour colleagues and me, I was pleased to see that the Chancellor finally accepted some responsibility to the communities in Wales, and pledged £31 million for flooding repairs and to help secure the coal tips.

Sadly, however, I have real concerns about this Government’s commitment to working with the Welsh Government to secure long-term, sustainable solutions to this problem. One of the major problems facing people in my community who have experienced flooding is accessing home insurance. Although the Flood Re scheme has helped some individuals, there are still major problems of affordability, especially for the poorest households. One of the major concerns that brings real anxiety to people who have experienced flooding is the possibility that this could happen again.

Ultimately, if nothing is done to address the climate crisis in this country, sadly, many more people will find themselves with the same anxiety and fears as those of my constituents. Indeed, the Met Office’s own report on the issue, “State of the UK Climate”, published in 2019, shows that the UK’s climate is becoming wetter. The findings highlighted that the highest rainfall totals over a five-day period were 4% higher between 2008 and 2017 compared with the averages between 1961 and 1990.

We are lucky in Wales to have our fantastic Welsh Labour Government, who not only have a fantastic record on tackling climate change, but are at the forefront of supporting sustainable planning and home building across the country. Colleagues may roll their eyes, but one of the policy areas I feel most passionate about is sustainable drainage systems. In 2019, the Welsh Labour Government introduced mandatory regulations on new housing developments to help reduce flood risk and improve water quality. These SUDS not only help address the issue of flooding in a sustainable and environmentally friendly way, but can help improve local wildlife and biodiversity. Despite the fantastic benefits of SUDS, the UK Government still trail behind and have failed to introduce mandatory regulations for developments here in England.

To conclude, while I am aware that my contribution today is at risk of turning into an ode to my former employer, I would also like to place on record my support for any initiatives that improve accessibility to clean water. The last 12 months have been extraordinarily difficult for my community both because of the devastation of last year’s flooding and because the coronavirus has left many people concerned about their jobs and livelihoods. Welsh Water, being a not-for-profit company, truly is leading the way with some fantastic work to support those who need extra help. Its HelpU scheme helps the lowest-income households eligible to have their bills capped so that they know they will not be paying over a certain amount of money.

I am sure we can all agree that such schemes are vital to helping people across Wales, regardless of income, have access to clean, sanitised water. This is particularly important in a world where, according to research by the World Health Organisation and the UN, a whopping 785 million people do not have clean water close to home. With the Queen’s Speech just round the corner, I sincerely hope that the Minister will carefully consider the points raised here today. The Government have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to lead from the front on climate change and to make a real and meaningful difference to everyone who lives under the threat of flooding.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Navendu Mishra) on securing this vitally important debate for World Water Day.

Clean water, decent toilets and good hygiene are key foundations to supporting communities to break free from extreme poverty and inequality. Water Aid’s mission statement says:

“Some people dream of finding water on Mars. Others dream of finding it here on Earth.”

While developed countries continue to rightly seek progress, we have to recognise that the basic life-sustaining rights we are afforded need to be replicated in deprived areas across the world. I recognise that progress has been made, as 1.7 billion people have gained access to safely managed sanitation since 2000, but there is still a long way to go. Some 55% of the global population still do not have access to safe sanitation, and 2 billion people lack access to safe water for drinking, cooking or personal use.

We have seen over the past year how a shortage of clean water for handwashing, sanitation and general hygiene in healthcare facilities worldwide has undermined countries’ covid response. The lack of access to water in hospitals and clinics has risked the lives of health workers and patients as well as potentially perpetuating the pandemic.

Without concerted international action, the situation in the global south is going to quickly deteriorate because of the climate emergency. It is the world’s most vulnerable who bear the brunt of climate breakdown despite having contributed to it the least. Extreme weather such as prolonged droughts is drying up water sources, while rising sea levels and flooding are contaminating ill-protected water supplies. The Environmental Justice Foundation has estimated that one in every seven people in Bangladesh will be displaced by climate change by 2050. Former Governor of the Bank of England and UN special envoy Mark Carney has said:

“When you look at climate change from a human mortality perspective, it will be the equivalent of a coronavirus crisis every year from the middle of this century, and every year, not just a one-off event.”

It is shameful that when faced with such a huge injustice, the Conservative Government decide to step back from their international commitments by slashing the overseas aid budget from 0.7% of GNI to 0.5%. The Government must not renege on our internationally binding obligation to work collaboratively to guarantee access to water and sanitation for all by 2030 under the 2015 UN sustainable development goals.

As well as addressing water scarcity in developing countries, the UK also has an obligation to ensure that it is not wasted domestically. The Tories’ privatisation of water has been a disaster. People have been left without water for days and trillions of litres of water have been lost through leakages, all while billions of pounds of bill payers’ money is siphoned off in dividend payments to wealthy shareholders. The only way to end the dismal mistreatment of our utilities in the UK that is impacting the public’s pocket and our planet is by bringing water back into democratic public ownership.

I echo the comments by my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport about the Flint, Michigan water scandal. In Flint, privatised water has had dire consequences for the local community. Private water company Veolia and former governor Rick Snyder prioritised profit over people and the environment, subsequently poisoning a predominantly African-American and economically poor community. If the terrible situation in Flint is to teach us anything, it is that access to water is a right and not a commodity to be profited from.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Navendu Mishra) on securing this really important debate for World Water Day.

I pay tribute to the incredible Right2Water campaign that the Irish people began in 2014 against the corporate theft of their water in order to maintain their water and sanitation in public ownership, paid for by progressive taxation. This was the biggest single-issue mobilisation of citizens in the state’s history, bringing 600,000 people on to the streets over seven days of peaceful demonstrations and collecting over 2 million signatures for their petition. They demand that water and sanitation are enshrined as a fundamental human right, that water supply and management of water resources are not subject to internal market rules, and that efforts are made to achieve universal access to water and sanitation.

Today, on World Water Day, I take up those demands and call for them to be implemented here in the UK. We need a water and sanitation infrastructure that is driven by universal access, health and safety, protecting the environment, and minimising waste. We know what happens when this fundamental right is corrupted by the profit motive. Throughout the world, private water companies have ravaged our environment and put profits before people.

The Flint water scandal was one of the worst man-made environmental disasters in American history. To cut costs, the private water contractor was allowed to use the Flint water supply to serve the city’s predominantly working-class African American population, with 45% of residents living below the poverty line. A wave of complaints about the foul-smelling, discoloured and off-tasting water were chronically ignored, overlooked and discounted by local government officials for more than 18 months, despite the water causing itchy skin, rashes and hair loss among residents. To date, 12,000 children have been exposed to the dangerous levels of lead that had seeped out of aged and corroded pipelines and into people’s homes. Twelve people died from a related outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease. Faecal coliform bacteria was found in the water and dealt with by the adding of more chlorine without addressing the underlying issues, resulting in increased levels of cancer-causing chemicals in the water. It was a devastating example of environmental injustice and racism, driven by profit and greed.

From fracking in Lancashire to the Dakota access pipeline in the United States, private companies are ravaging our environment and putting profit before the needs and wellbeing of our communities. The climate change emergency brings further risks in respect of access to clean water around the world. The question of water justice is an urgent one and the challenges are growing fast. Some 2 billion people lack access to safe water for drinking, cooking and personal use. Just as the challenges are global, so must be our movement. In the year that the UK plays host to both the G7 and COP26, we need to lead the way by increasing the share of climate finance dedicated to helping the poorest countries to adapt to climate change. With no clean water to drink, cook and wash with, communities falter and people get sick, putting their lives, livelihoods and futures at risk. By 2040, the situation is predicted to be even worse, with climate change making water perilously scarce for 600 million children.

I call on the Government to bring our water back into public ownership and to do everything necessary to ensure that third-world countries have access to clean water to drink, cook and wash.

It is always a pleasure to speak in this House for three or four minutes.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Stockport (Navendu Mishra) on bringing this matter to the House. We are so blasé about water: we turn on the tap, the water comes out and we do not think about it. But there are parts of the world where that does not happen—although not, of course, around Newcastle in South Down, where people can look at the mountains of Mourne and see whether it is raining or about to rain, and that is perhaps where it is in that country.

A few years ago, I hosted a dinner in a local church and the profits from the meals were going to a project called H2O—water. I heard the story of entire communities taking their water from the river in which animals bathed and did their business and that carried all human waste away. Finance was raised to bore a water well that provided those communities with fresh water, and health has improved in that village as a consequence.

I congratulate the church group Challenge Ministries Swaziland UK for its great work in Swaziland, but it is not alone in the work it carries out. I note that the group is hosting a virtual concert called “Surviving Our Storm” on Friday 26 March at 6.30 pm, with choirs from the Eden church in Newtownards, other churches in Northern Ireland and churches in Swaziland. I will post a link on my Facebook page next week, should anyone wish to watch. It is hard to raise funds these days, but such projects, which think outside the box, ensure that we do not abandon those who rely on us.

There are many missionaries, churches and charities that work so hard to raise awareness and bring about change, and I thank them for all that they do. I understand that the FCDO works with Unilever to bring together groups of people; how can churches, missionary organisations and charity groups feed into that process? They are committed to Africa and further afield and can make things happen.

We all know the horrendous stats: 2 billion people lack access to safe water for drinking, cooking or personal use; 1.7 billion people have gained access to safely managed sanitation since 2000, but 55% per cent of the global population still lacks access; 3 billion people are unable to wash their hands with soap and water; and one in two healthcare facilities in the least developed countries lack basic water services, and three in five have no sanitation services. These things are critical, so I urge the Government to respond in a way that means we can all help.

It is my firm belief that the UK should use its role as chair of the G7 to bring global donors together to fund the $1.2 billion needed to build the basic infrastructure for water, sanitation, hygiene and healthcare facilities in the least developed countries. We can help and make a difference and I believe sincerely that it is right and proper to do so.

I look to the Minister and to my Government to ensure, with the NGOs, that every person has access to that which we take for granted: the basic necessity of water.

I thank the hon. Member for Stockport (Navendu Mishra) for securing this debate on World Water Day. Such a debate is a reminder of how lucky we are in the UK and how fortunate I am. In Scotland, we enjoy world-class, high-quality water, drinkable straight from the tap, and, unlike in England, it is publicly owned and will remain so unless the Tories use the pernicious United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020 to privatise it. It is worth noting that water bills in Scotland are 12% lower than in England.

The theme of World Water Day 2021 is “Valuing Water” and, indeed, water—safe water—is beyond price. As highlighted by the International Rescue Committee, practising simple hygiene, especially hand washing, plays a critical role in reducing the transmission of covid-19 and other communicable diseases, yet according to the latest UNICEF estimates, only three out of five people worldwide have basic hand-washing facilities. Some 40% of the world’s population, or 3 billion people, do not have a hand-washing facility with water and soap at home.

It is a terrible fact that billions of people worldwide still live without safely managed drinking water and sanitation. The world is not on track, sadly, to achieve the sustainable development goal of sanitation for all by 2030, as the current rate of progress needs to quadruple to reach the global target of universal access by 2030. It is shameful that while every other G7 country has responded to the covid-19 pandemic by increasing aid, the UK Government are alone in choosing to cut it by approximately £4 billion this year, after a cut of £2.9 billion last year, and, in doing so, reneging on a legally binding aid spending commitment and breaking yet another manifesto promise. The Government must urgently rethink this move and U-turn on the plan to abandon their 0.7% commitment to aid spending, if tragic consequences for the world’s most vulnerable are to be avoided.

For example, the UK Government announced earlier this month that they would cut aid to Yemen by nearly 60% in 2022, directly risking cutting food and water support to a quarter of a million vulnerable people. Some 92% of the UK aid budget in Yemen goes to disaster relief, health, education and water, with 7.8 million people in Yemen lacking clean water and sanitation, including an estimated 9.2 million children who have no access to clean water, sanitation and hygiene. In sub-Saharan Africa, 63% of people in urban areas, or 258 million people, currently lack access to hand-washing facilities, while it has been reported that the UK Government are set to cut aid to the most water-scarce region of sub-Saharan Africa by a staggering 93%.

The UK Government’s decision to refocus UK aid spending towards supporting trading interests in favoured countries, as opposed to poverty alleviation, will cost the lives of the poorest people on earth, who do not even have suitable drinking water. There are deep concerns about the UK Government’s £120 million funding cut as well for international research on water security. With almost no notice, this cut has taken place and has been condemned by the UN.

For the poorest people in the world, the situation is already much worse than any of us in the UK could imagine. Extreme weather, such as prolonged droughts, dry up water resources like springs and wells, while rising sea levels and flooding contaminates ill-protected water supplies, with dire consequences. With no clean water to drink, cook or wash, communities falter, putting their lives, livelihoods and futures at risk. By 2040, the situation is predicted to be even worse, with climate change making water perilously scarce for 600 million children—that is one in four.

Safer water has huge implications also for maternal and newborn health and, tragically, infections associated with unclean births account for 26% of newborn deaths and 11% of maternal mortality, together accounting for more than 1 million deaths each year. Approximately 20% of all global deaths are due to sepsis, amounting to approximately 11 million potentially avoidable deaths each year. More than half of all healthcare-associated deaths could be prevented through the provision of safe water and sanitation, as part of infection prevention and control.

A lack of access to water for hygiene and personal use and sanitation can affect women and girls in multiple intersecting ways. Girls and women in sub-Saharan Africa spend 40 billion working hours a year collecting water—time that therefore cannot be spent participating in education, employment, social and political activities. With studies linking child survival most closely to their mother’s education level and poverty level, factors that reduce educational opportunities for girls have significant implications, not only for their economic and social opportunities, but for the health and wellbeing of their families and communities.

Water security is quite literally the difference between life and death, and the poorest people on earth are suffering and dying without vital access to this natural and essential resource. For the UK Government to slash their aid budget when the poorest people on Earth need it most is truly shameful. Let’s change that.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Navendu Mishra) on securing this important debate. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson), who has done so much work in this area, and who continues to fight for proper funding for WASH, and to my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones), who speaks eloquently about the need for access to clean water close to home and about flooding issues.

It is a pleasure to follow such powerful contributions from across the House. I also want to put on record my thanks to WaterAid and the many other organisations across the world fighting to put water accessibility at the top of the agenda and continuing their fight for a global solution to a global challenge.

Water, and access to water, is at the very core of who we are. It fuels humanity and is the driving force of advancement and progress. Water is the thread that binds us, weaving together people and places across the globe; it is the universal language, but today we have heard Members across the House raise alarming issues, emphasising that in our rapidly changing world, when it comes to water we are no longer equal. Whether because of dwindling resources or access, water is at the centre of the rising crises around us, from climate to conflict to covid. We have a water emergency.

A large portion of the world is on a collision course. Whether through drought, or scarcity, or water weaponisation by rogue actors, 3 billion people across the world are affected by water shortages—half of those as a consequence of climate breakdown. When the wells run dry we learn the true value of water. But it is no longer just the wells; the once great lakes, and the roving rivers that bring fresh water to communities, to fields for crops, and that support jobs and livelihoods, are also drying up.

How lucky are we, then, to have such easy access to water when so many have none—to live in a society where we celebrate the discovery of water on distant planets, yet access for so many is becoming ever more distant. And it is the world’s most vulnerable who bear the brunt, whether that is in conflict zones, in fragile states, or because of climate breakdown.

Last week, I was fortunate to speak to some incredible women—Rose, Rosemary and Comfort, from communities in Kenya and Uganda, three extraordinary women leading grassroots responses to climate breakdown in their own communities. Rosemary, who educates women and girls in rural Kenya to build sustainable water infrastructure, shared her experiences with me. She spoke of the women in her communities who walk for miles to find water, meaning that there is less time to think about how to intervene in, adapt to and mitigate these crises. This means that their daughters must spend more time looking after the household and their siblings, so they are unable to go to school. “It is always the women,” she said, “They are the ones disproportionately affected by the climate crisis and water emergency. They are the ones who have to pick up the pieces. They are the ones who have to find the dwindling supply and lean on daughters for support. Where is the international community for help?”

Rosemary is talking about the importance of aid and development money, making sure that money reaches the people who need it, that girls have access to education and are not forced to stay at home, that the necessary equipment is built for new wells closer to home, and that there is money in place for preventive measures. We know, however, that this Government have announced severe and damaging cuts, which will have a direct impact on Rosemary.

As well as scarcity, there is the increasing weaponisation of water. Naza, a young Syrian woman, told me, “It is always the innocent that suffer.” After 10 years of war in Syria, nowhere is that more true than in Hasakah in north-east Syria, where Turkish authorities break international law by restricting water for half a million people. Worse still, they have had their aid access cut at the border crossing. This must urgently be reauthorised by the Security Council this year.

The Prime Minister chaired the most recent UN Security Council meeting, which looked at water access, and just this week said that tackling climate breakdown is his top priority. Yet his actions do not match his words. Let us look at what this Government are actually doing. Where water scarcity is most acute, the Government have spent upwards of £4 billion on funding fossil fuel projects in developing nations since the Paris climate agreement. Despite promises of a phase-out and a consultation, which by all accounts the Government seem to have already prejudged, we are still waiting for action to be taken. Meanwhile, they continue to green-light projects polluting water sources, fields and food chains. This is unacceptable.

Although distribution of an equitable vaccine through COVAX is essential for fighting covid, it is unlikely that that vaccine will be available in those low income, water-stressed nations until 2023. Water and sanitation are vital for maintaining good hygiene and preventing the spread of the virus. How do we beat a mutating virus when one in three people does not have access to safe drinking water, and two in five people do not have basic hand-washing facilities?

Aid and development spend is our first responder and last line of defence to keep our world safe and secure. It really sticks in the throat that the Minister will no doubt rise to tell this House about problems across the world when it is this Government’s politically motivated cuts to aid that will undo the resilience necessary to tackle them. When the Government are slashing aid by one third, how do they hope to lead at the G7 summit? How will they address the £1 billion shortfall in the funding needed to build the basic infrastructure for water sanitation and hygiene?

The Foreign Secretary has set out seven core priorities for the aid budget for the year ahead, but they do not exist in a silo. When the Government are cutting £5 billion from the aid budget, where do they draw the line? All the issues overlap, driving inequality, scarcity and poverty collectively. Which projects are the Government going to cut? Which person’s lifeline are they choosing to withdraw—Naza or Rosemary? What message does this send as we host COP26 this year? Will the Government give those from climate-vulnerable, low-income nations a voice, as Labour has called for, and a long overdue seat at the table, so that the voices of those I have raised today are given equal weight?

Ambition without action is fantasy. Now it is time for the Government to start leading through the power of their example. They should not turn their back on the most vulnerable when they need us most.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Stockport (Navendu Mishra) for securing this important debate just four days before World Water Day on 22 March. I am grateful to Members across the House who have raised a number of specific points, which I will address, and who have shared many experiences and examples of the importance of water both domestically and globally.

The theme of this year’s World Water Day is “valuing water”. What does that mean? The value of water is far more than its price. Access to safe water, sanitation and good hygiene is critical for people’s health. In much of the world, diarrhoea is a killer, responsible for the deaths of 1,200 young children a day. Almost 60% of those deaths are caused by inadequate water, sanitation and hygiene.

We have committed to help end preventable deaths, and improving water supply, sanitation and hygiene is one of the most effective ways we can do that. However, as Members have rightly reminded us, nearly 800 million people still lack access to basic water supplies, 2 million live without basic sanitation services, and 3 billion do not have any hand-washing facilities at home. That last statistic should ring loud. We are dealing with the worst pandemic in a century, and 40% of the global population are unable to wash their hands at home—something that we take for granted.

Beyond the household, one in four healthcare facilities has no water supply, rising to 50% in the world’s least developed countries. Health facilities should be a source of care, not of infection. We want universal access to water, sanitation and hygiene by 2030, but at the current rate of progress we are not going to achieve that before the end of the century.

The value of water extends well beyond its direct connection with health. Water allows children—especially girls—to attend school and learn there. According to UNICEF, one in three girls lacks basic water supplies. Even more lack facilities for menstrual hygiene, which is a massive barrier for adolescent girls. Access to water for household use and public services is fundamental for human health and development, but it only accounts for 11% of all the fresh water we use. Agriculture and industry use the rest, and demand is fast outpacing supply. Climate change is making the situation worse, as we have heard this afternoon. In many parts of the world, prolonged drought and severe flooding are becoming more common, which have particularly high human impacts in developing countries. Poor people are experiencing climate change through water.

The UK Government take the issue of water and sanitation very seriously, as a development concern and as part of our approach to dealing with covid-19. Members have raised the importance of hand washing. Recognising that hand hygiene is a critical element to tackle the virus, in March last year we forged a unique partnership with Unilever: the Hygiene and Behaviour Change Coalition. It is a brilliant example of what we can achieve through partnership, with the private sector, the public sector, civil society and research institutions all working together. We provided £50 million of funding, which Unilever matched in hygiene products and expertise in promoting behaviour change.[Official Report, 23 March 2021, Vol. 691, c. 4MC.]

The programme has been active in 37 low and middle-income countries, from Brazil to Kiribati and Syria to South Africa. Action on the ground is by an amazing team of 18 NGOs, UNICEF, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Unilever has donated tens of millions of bars of soap and other hygiene products, alongside its valuable advice and campaign materials. This ambitious programme has an equally ambitious target, which is to reach 1 billion people with essential advice on hand hygiene, and we are almost there.

More broadly, I am pleased to report that we have exceeded our target of 60 million more people with safe water or sanitation over the last five years. Those receiving our support are among the world’s poorest and in fragile or conflict-affected areas.

Reliability and sustainability are important concerns, too. We are assessing the sustainability of our earlier work and that review will inform a shift in our emphasis. We will move from supporting household or community systems to supporting Governments to establish or strengthen services. British innovation will drive services from e-payment and smart maintenance systems to safe reuse and recycling. That will maximise the impact of UK aid and, at the same time, demonstrate what the UK has to offer in this area. It will also help to attract domestic and private resources, which are vital to meet our ambition of universal access to water, sanitation and hygiene by 2030.

That shift will be reinforced by national leadership on water, sanitation and hygiene, with sound policies and plans that are backed up by good evidence. We will do that through several channels: the Sanitation and Water for All partnership, which includes more than 70 national Governments, our support to the World Health Organisation for evidence-based guidance, and our support to the UNICEF-WHO joint monitoring programme, which is tracking progress against the sanitation and water global goal. That work reinforces our wider objectives of safeguarding water resources.

With UK support, water insecurity is an increasingly hot topic for Governments in the run-up to COP26 later this year in Glasgow. The new Adaptation Action Coalition has identified water as one of the three priority themes to address with UK support. We know that the challenges are enormous, but I am confident that we can and will use our insight, experience and resources to good effect. We will work with like-minded partners and deliver the impact that is urgently needed.

I thank all those who have taken part in this debate ahead of World Water Day on Monday. I thank the shadow Minister and the Minister for their contributions. In particular, I thank the Backbench Business Committee and my hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson) for supporting me with this debate.

There is overwhelming support in this country for bringing water companies back into public hands—63% are in favour, and Scotland’s publicly owned Scottish Water is the most trusted utility company in Britain. From listening to the many contributions to the debate, it is clear that there is widespread consensus that the Government must honour the UK’s international aid commitment, restore the ring-fenced aid funding and reverse the cuts that have led to a number of programmes relating to the provision of clean water, hygiene and sanitation being underfunded.

What was also communicated today is that the privatised water system in our country is not fit for purpose and that it must be brought back into public hands to ensure the highest standards and value to the consumer. It must finally be restored after decades of failure.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered World Water Day 2021.